Thursday, July 30, 2020

Time To Reduce

As we come out of an SDCC@Home weekend where I probably ate about as healthy as I would at an actual con (I was going for the full experience) I thought it’d be a great time to talk about reducing things.

He said, in a blog post he skipped getting on the treadmill to write....

Anyway, back when I was doing the A2Q we broke down different types of editing, and one of them I touched on was reductive editing. This is when I start cutting and trimming to make my story lean and tight. Figuring out what needs to be there as opposed to all the stuff I threw down while I was working on the first draft.

And since I just finished doing this with my new book last week, I thought I’d talk about some of the cuts I made and explain why I made them.

The first cut was easy. I had a section where two chapters overlapped. I liked the overlap at first. It was an action scene with multiple characters, and I thought it kept things moving to show all of his fight and then all of her fight, even though they happened at the same time.

But when I looked at it again during my editing pass it just felt... slow. Also kinda repetitive, since I kept referring to the other fight in both versions to show how they overlapped. Also, it created an odd problem with ending the chapters—either one had to end flat or I had to repeat the cool end-beat and weaken it. So I cherry picked a bit, leaned more into his than hers (for a couple of reasons, but I feel pretty good about it for the moment) and then cut 750 words of overlap.

The next one was rough. Throughout the book I had a few chapters where we switched POV and checked in with the main antagonist—the big bad in charge. Essentially, that big voice going “Meanwhile, at the mad scientist’s lair...” Thing is, these chapters never sat right at any point in the process. Not in my first draft. Not in my second, “cleaning up” draft. I didn’t want to give away too much in these chapters (since my villain was much more in the know than my protagonist), but it was hard not to mention some things without feeling like characters were deliberately not talking about things.

I’m not sure exactly what did it, but I know during my second draft I had the realization that I could probably cut one of these POV chapters altogether. There wasn’t a lot of necessary information in it, and I realized what there was I could shift to other chapters and characters without any real trouble. And that made me suddenly wonder... wait, do I actually need any of these chapters? I mean, a big chunk of the first one was just backstory justifying the antagonist and their behavior... while not talking about anything that would give things away. Another one introduced a character I’d only created to make some exposition read better. The more I looked at it... yeah, I’d definitely have to rework some things, but for the story I was telling these chapters were really distracting and didn’t add anything. Heck—two of them I still hadn’t even fleshed out, even though they’d been through two drafts.

So that was another six thousand words gone. A little over six thousand, really. Only a few pounding heartbeats for that one. And now the knives come out. Time for the death of a thousand cuts.

I’ve talked before about looking out for overused words. So I did a couple passes looking for that, adverbs, a lot of the “somewhat” words and phrases I can’t help but use in train-of-thought mode. We all have them, and you might already be aware of yours. If not, feel free to borrow mine for now and see where they get you.

I also had some other things that I was worried about—words that might be showing up a lot by nature of this specific story and how it was being told. That was another pass or three through the manuscript. I was kinda surprised that one or two didn’t get used as much as I thought they would, but... one I included as an afterthought showed up way more than I expected. Think I deleted eighty-something uses of that one.

One thing that did strike me with this is I didn’t find a lot of my usual padding. The adverbs and the “somewhat” phrases. It was still there, yeah, but not as thick as I’ve piled it on at times in the past. After twelve full books, I’m finally improving. Maybe.

In the end not quite a death of a thousand cuts. With additions and rewrites as I went, it worked out to a little over 300 words less. A full page gone.

That’s how this part of editing goes. Word by word. Sometimes chapter by chapter. All of this added up about 7,250 words gone out of what began as a 124K manuscript. And I still may trim a little more when I get notes back from my beta readers.

Next time, if you’re up for it, I’d like to play doctor for a little bit. No, not like that. Get your minds out of the gutter!

Until then, go write...

Friday, July 24, 2020

B-Movie Mistakes

If you’ve been following me for any amount of time, you’ve probably caught on to my questionable Saturday viewing habits. Questionable in the sense of “why would someone keep doing this to themselves? And to their liver?”

I’ll sit down with some little toy soldiers to build, put on a movie with aliens or giant monsters or werewolves, and tweet out the occasional observation, critique, or scream of pain. It’s kinda fun, in a masochistic sort of way, and I’m a big believer that you can learn a lot from figuring out where bad things went wrong and how they could be fixed. And I’ve seen a lot of screenplays go wrong over the years. Some I worked on. Some I read for contests. And... some I watched while building little toy soldiers.

Over all this time, I’ve seen definite patterns emerge. The same mistakes happening again and again and again. It was part of what made me start this whole ranty blog way back when in the distant before-time.

And screenwriting is a form of storytelling, which means some of these mistakes—maybe even all of them—are universal. I might not have any interest in writing movie scripts, sure. Not everyone does. But these issues can show up in books, short stories, comics... all sorts of storytelling formats.

So maybe they’re worth checking out.

Anyway, here are my top ten B-movie mistakes, updated a bit since the last time I write them out. Some of it may seem generally familiar. Some of it... well, I’ve found new ways to look at some problems over the past three years.

10) Bad directing
Let’s just get this one out of the way, because it’s the easiest one. It’s also the most universal one. This’ll be a horrible blow to anyone who likes auteur theory, but while there are some phenomenal directors out there, the simple truth is there’s also a lot who have absolutely no clue what they’re doing. None. Yeah, even some directors you’ve heard of.  They have no concept of narrative, continuity, pacing... anything.

This is a killer because ultimately, the director’s the one interpreting the story on the page into a visual story on the screen. Even if they didn’t write the script, the best story can be ruined by a bad storyteller.  How often have we seen a book or movie that had a really cool idea or an interesting character and it was just... wasted?

Because of this—random true fact—whenever you see a horrible story on screen, it’s always the fault of the director and producers. Never the screenwriter. The only reason scripts get shot is because the director and producers insist on shooting them. If it was a great script and they butchered it—that’s their fault. If it was a bad script and they decided to shoot it anyway—that’s also their fault.

9) Showing the wrong thing
This kinda falls under bad directing, but I’ve seen it enough times that it really deserves it own number. Sometimes a story keeps pushing X in our face when we really want to see Y. Or Z. Sometimes the story calls for Y to be the center of focus, but we still keep putting X on camera. And sometimes there’s no need to see X at all—we understand it through dialogue and acting and other bits of context—but we show X anyway.

A lot of this is a general failure of empathy—the filmmakers aren’t thinking about how the movie’s going to be seen. I’ve also talked a couple times about subtlety, using the scalpel vs. the sledgehammer, and that’s a big part of this, too. Sometimes there’s a reason we’re seeing a lot of nudity or a swirling vortex of gore, but all too often... it’s just because the storyteller doesn’t know what else to show us.

8) Bad action
Pretty sure we can all think of an example of this. The almost slow-motion fight scenes that feel like they filmed the rehearsal. The medium-speed chase that drags on waaaaaay too long. The pointless shoot-out that clearly wasn’t thought through since everyone’s standing out in the open.

Action gets seen as filler a lot of the time, and it doesn’t help that a lot of gurus teach it that way. “Hit page 23—you need an action beat! Hit page 42—another action beat!” There’s absolutely nothing wrong with action, but bad action is particularly bad in the visual storytelling format of movies. Unnecessary action isn’t much better.

Think of scale, too. It’s always better to have a small, well-done action scene than a sprawling, poorly-executed one. We can relate to two people fighting so much better that two gangs of sixty people each slamming together. Especially when it’s supposed to be two gangs of sixty members each but there are maybe eight people on screen. Moving in slow motion.

7) Too Much Stuff
Remember when we were young and there was that one kid (we all knew this kid) who got so excited to be Dungeon Master? And he made that awesome dungeon with five liches and a dozen displacer beasts and twenty gold dragons and thirty platinum dragons and fifty minotaurs all wearing +3 plate armor and using +5 flaming axes and a hundred zombies and Demogorgon and half the Egyptian gods and...

I think we’ve all played that game, right? Let’s be honest... maybe some of us were that kid?

Some B-movies get like that.  The filmmakers have too many ideas—way more than their budget or schedule allows—and they try to stick everything into the story.  Every cool idea from every other cool story, sure to be just as cool here, right? Truth is, they almost never are.  All these extra ideas just end up being under-developed distractions at best. 

6) Killing the wrong people
There’s always going to be collateral damage in certain types of stories. Thing is, by nature of being collateral damage, the story doesn’t focus on these people and their deaths don’t really register.  And they shouldn’t. That’s what collateral means after all—they’re secondary. Not as important. But in the tight, compressed nature of a movie, we need these deaths to be important. They need to serve a purpose in the story, hopefully on more than one level.

I’ve talked about the awful habit of introducing characters for no purpose except to kill them.  We meet Phoebe, get three or four minutes of backstory and bam she’s dead without moving the plot forward an inch. Because Phoebe wasn’t really part of the plot, she was just there to wear a bikini top and let the FX crew show off their new blood fountain.

The only thing worse than this is when it’s time for the ultimate sacrifice... and my hero doesn’t make it. A minor character steps forward to throw the final switch or recite the last words. And the “hero” sits back and watches as someone else saves the day.

5) Wasting Time
This one’s the flipside of point #7. I just mentioned that in the limited space of a movie script, everything needs to serve a purpose. If that touching backstory linking two characters doesn’t affect the plot or story somehow, it’s just five minutes of filler I could’ve spent on something else... like the plot or the story. If these shouted arguments don’t somehow reveal something key to the progress of the movie... they may just be a lot of wasted time.

One of the most common time-wasters in B-movies is the unconnected opening. It’s when the first five or ten minutes focus on a group of characters we’ll never see again, usually never even reference again, and who have no effect on the rest of the plot. Honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever seen one of these openings that couldn’t be cut, and I’d guess 83% of the time the whole movie would be stronger—on many levels—without it.

4) Not knowing what genre my story is
I’ve mentioned a few times that I worked on a B-level sex-revenge-thriller-sequel where the director thought he was making a noir mystery. I’ve seen horror films done as sci-fi and fantasy movies that were done as horror films, and vice versa.  Heck, I’ve written stories where I’d planned it as one thing, and realized halfway through it was something very different.

I've talked about genre a lot over the past few weeks, so I won’t go into it much more here. To sum up quick if you don’t want to hit the link, all genres have certain expectations when it comes to tone, pacing, and even structure.  If I’ve got a story in one genre that I’m telling with the expectations of another, there’s going to be a clash. And that clash probably won’t help my storytelling.

3) Plot Zombies
All credit to A. Lee Martinez, creator of this wonderful term. Sometimes, characters do things that are unnatural for them just to further the plot. The brave person becomes cowardly. The timid person does something wild and unpredictable. People argue and storm off for no reason. Well, so one of them can get murdered by the monster after going for a calming nighttime swim in the lake, but past that... no reason.

Plot zombies just stumble around a movie, doing whatever the story calls for. They don’t have any personality or agency, and one’s pretty much as good as the next one Really, one plot zombie’s the same as any other plot zombie. If I have an inspiring speech or an act of wild abandon or a last minute moment of brilliance, and there’s no reason I can’t swap all the characters around in it... it means I’ve got plot zombies.

2) Horrible dialogue
Bad dialogue always makes for bad characters.  If we can’t believe in the characters, we can’t believe in the story.  If I can’t believe in the story... well, that’s kind of it, isn’t it?

So many movies have painfully bad dialogue. Pointless arguments. Annoying characters. Awful technobabble.  And sometimes—too much of the time—it’s just bad.  It’s lines that sound like they went back and forth through Google translate and then the actor’s seeing them for the first time on a teleprompter while they’re filming.

Personally, bad dialogue drives me nuts, because it means the storytellers have no idea what human beings sound like. It’s a massive failure of empathy, and that empathy almost always shows up elsewhere. I’ve never, ever seen a story with bad dialogue that excelled everywhere else. It just doesn’t happen.

1) Who am I rooting for?
This is still the number one killer in America. This is what brings so many B-movies—so many STORIES—to a gear-grinding halt. 

So many movies have absolutely no likable characters. Everyone’s self-centered, obnoxious, stupid, or arrogant... or a combination of these traits. They’re all awful, sometimes disgusting people. All of them. The bad guys and the good guys.  People start dying and I’m always glad, no matter who they are.

If I’m expected to sit here and watch this for ninety minute, I need a reason to follow someone besides “they’re the main character.”  I need to like watching their story play out. I need to be able to identify with some aspect of their personality. The movie needs to have someone I actually care about. ‘Cause if it doesn’t. I won’t care if they win or lose. And if I don’t care about that... well... I’m not going  to be sitting here for ninety minutes

And that’s my personal, current top ten B-movie mistakes.

Hey, speaking of movies... this Saturday I’m doing my usual Saturday geekery, but for SDCC @ Home I’m doing it as a watch-along party. Come hang out on (LINK) Twitter starting at noon (PST) for Krull, followed by the Keanu Reeves Constantine at 2:30, and finishing up the day with Resident Evil at 5:00. It’s going to be fun and maybe a little informative. Plus there’ll be a couple other folks chiming in with the #KrullKon2020 hashtag, and even a few giveaways.

And next time here, I thought I’d talk a bit about editing this new book.

Until then... go write.

And maybe enjoy a movie or three.

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

SDCC @ Home

In the before time, this would be the day I pack up and drive down to San Diego to beat the traffic. I’d crash with some friends, play some games, watch a movie, have a drink or three, and then tomorrow would begin the fun logistical nightmare that is San Diego Comic Con.

Of course, I moved to San Diego, and last year I found out how much easier some aspects of SDCC are when you can just walk a few blocks and hop on the train to downtown. and now that I’ve worked out the kinks, this year should be...

Oh. Right.

While SDCC is technically not happening, the folks behind it are trying to bring a lot of it home to, well, everyone. Panels and programs are getting released online, and you can spend the next few days watching and learning. Plus a lot of side things are going on directly from vendors, publishers, and even some creative folks like me.

For example...

Friday at 4:00 (PST)on the SDCC YouTube Channel, I’m going to be on a panel with Kiersten White, Henry Herz, and Fonda Lee as we talk about creating worlds, characters, and conflicts as sci-fi and fantasy writers.

Saturday at 12:00 (PST) on Twitter, I’m going to be hosting an unofficial geekery watch party with a couple author friends and a trio of great B-movies to comment on. Krull. Constantine. Resident Evil. We’re going to watch them all, talk about why we love them, the things they do really well... and some of the thing they don’t. Plus, there’s going to be some giveaways from Audible (seriously) and tons of celebrity guests (no, not seriously... probably).

Sunday... well, normally we do some version of the Writers Coffeehouse at SDCC. As some of you know I’ve been trying to get it going again as an online Q & A/ discussion, where I ask a bunch of writer friends to help answer your questions about writing. There’s already a few episodes up on my own YouTube channel, and on Sunday I’m going to put up a lot more. So hop over there and get answers from Django Wexler, Kristi Charish, A. Lee Martinez, ML Brennan, Stephen Blackmoore, and more.

And all of this for the low, low price of absolutely free, delivered to you right there on your couch as you safely physically distance and do your part to help get Covid under control.

Enjoy.

Thursday, July 16, 2020

A Compass That Doesn’t Point North

A few weeks back I talked about things getting their genres mid-identified, and afterwards somebody asked an interesting follow up. Namely, how do we identify genres? What are the benchmarks? How do we decide if something’s sci-fi or a techo-thriller or a romance that just happens to be set in a sci-fi world?

I know this sounds like a simple question, but it isn’t. For a couple reasons. Which I shall go over now.

First and foremost thing to remember—I shouldn’t worry about genre while I’m writing. Genre’s really a marketing tool more than anything else, so it doesn’t have a lot of use on the creative/ artistic side of things. In fact, if I’m worrying a lot about the guidelines of a given genre while I’m writing, I may want to take a step back and make sure I’m not just trying to jump on a trend. In my experience... that doesn’t work out most of the time.

With that in mind... what even is genre? A great way to think of it is a compass (many thanks to Pierce Brown for this analogy). Genre points you in the general direction of things you’re looking for. You want to head south-west? Just keep going that way. You want to find horror novels? They’re all over there.

And that leads us to another good way to think of it, maybe an even more relatable one. Where would my book get stocked in the bookstore? Don’t think about getting misshelved or getting featured on that best-sellers endcap. No excuses, no avoiding the question. Picture your favorite store and decide where would it be shelved in that store. 

If I can’t answer this... I have a problem. Because this is how an agent’s going to try to sell my book. “It’s something new to go here.” Even if I’m just planning on self-publishing an ebook, Amazon’s going to want to know how to categorize it.

Let me tell you one last little story. My first published book was Ex-Heroes, which ended up becoming a series of books set in that world and all involving the same basic theme—superheroes fighting zombies in post-apocalyptic Los Angeles. When the series originally came out, it was through a small press that specialized in apocalyptic fiction, specifically zombie fiction. That was their niche, and they filled it perfectly. So they heavily emphasized the zombie/ post-apocalyptic aspects of the book in their publicity for it. That’s the direction their compass pointed.

But... by book three the series had moved to Broadway Paperbacks at Random House, and they wanted something that would promote well at comic conventions. So... the superheroes became the new focus. And so the compass needle for the books swung from the horror section (in the few stores the small press had gotten them into) to the sci-fi section.

My point being... life finds a way.

No, sorry, my point is that in both cases, the genre gave people a good idea what they’d find when they opened the book. Post-apocalyptic zombies. Superheroes.

So, that said... let’s talk very rough guidelines for a few basic genres. I won’t be able to touch on every genre (and may not even do a fantastic job with these), but I figure if you’re here looking for advice from me, there’s a semi-decent chance you’re writing the same kind of stuff you read. Which is me arrogantly assuming you ended up here because you read a couple of my books and liked them.

Science-Fiction—this is when my fictional elements have a rational, scientific explanation behind them. They don’t need to be explained (although hard science fans love it when you can), but they need to fall within a range of believability.

Science-Fantasy—This is when my story elements are hypothetically grounded in science, but (to paraphrase Arthur C. Clarke) they’re so far advanced they’re beyond all possible understanding and essentially magic.

Fantasy—This is when some aspect of the rules of reality are tossed out the window. It might mean magic. It might mean new races or species (dragons, elves, orcs, owlbears, what have you). Fantasy tends to have less technologically-developed settings.

Urban Fantasy—A subgenre I thought was worth mentioning. Here we’re still tossing some of the reality-rules out the window, but we’re specifically doing it in a modern (or near-modern), real-world setting, often with more modern technology alongside it.

Horror—Might sound obvious, but many aspects of these stories involve fear for both the characters and the reader. Depending on my exact subgenre, that fear can have many different causes and intensities.

Romance—again, might sound obvious, but in romance most of the elements revolve around two characters developing a relationship despite various challenges. There may or may not be a sexual element (of varying explicitness) again depending on my subgenre.

Mystery—This is when the main thrust is trying to find answers to a problem—very often (but not always) involving a crime of some sorts. Another good rule of thumb for mysteries—they tend to center around something that already happened. The mystery is past tense.

Thriller—Somewhat similar to mysteries, this is when the plot elements involve a current, ongoing problem. Because of this, thrillers also tend to have a strong action component and fast pacing. The rule of thumb—thrillers are happening right now.

That’s not all possible genres (not even close), and there are sooo many sub-genres, but it’s enough to get you started.

One last thing to tag onto this. You’ve probably heard of terms like young adult or middle grade. It’s worth noting these aren’t actually genres in and of themselves, but additional guidelines that get applied to a given story. It’s not about my story as much as it is about how I’m choosing to tell that story.

All of this leads me to my final bit of advice, which kind of ties back to that earlier post. If I had to give a one or two sentence elevator pitch about my story, what would be in that pitch? What would I be focusing on? Would I be talking about space elevators and moon colonies, or would I be emphasizing the zombie hordes rising from their graves? Remember—I’ve only got two sentences, and they can’t be run-ons. Elevator pitch. Very fast, very clear.

Consider Twilight. It has vampires and werewolves and more than a few deaths... but it’s not a horror story. It barely counts as urban fantasy. The thing we’d emphasize in our elevator pitch is the high schooler who falls in love with a vampire. It’s a romance novel. Supernatural romance if we want to start focusing down.

And remember—there may be elements to my story that’d normally be immediate signs of one genre, but they don’t come up in that elevator pitch. That’s okay. I shouldn’t try to cram them in. Tamsyn Muir’s Gideon the Ninth has lots of raunchy jokes and a few spaceships, but I’d bet 99% of the people who’ve read it don’t think of it as a comedy or a sci-fi novel--their minds jump right to the necromancy and the murder mystery.

And that’s all I’ve got to say about genre. Unless anyone has any specific questions?

Next time...
Well, in some beautiful, alternate world we all sheltered in place all through March and April, wore our masks for May, and now it’s perfectly safe for all of us to attend San Diego Comic Con next week! YAY!

But in this world, alas, SDCC was cancelled because of folks who refused to do those things. There are still going to be some virtual events, though. I’m doing a panel on sci-fi writing next Friday at 4:00. I’m hoping to have a new Coffeehouse video up by then. And I’m also going to be doing a special Saturday Geekery, live-tweeting a few B-movie classics with some friends. You should come join us.

And all this means that next time, I may revisit and revise my list of top B-movie mistakes.

So until then, go write.

And, c’mon... wear your mask.

Thursday, July 9, 2020

The Beta Version

I almost titled this “Betatron” but I didn’t think a lot of you would get a reference to a forty year old Micronauts toy that wasn’t super-popular then.

Or maybe a couple of you would. Who knows. Anyway...

Some of you may have seen me tweet about finishing a draft of my new book the other day. It’s the second, for those who care—my “fill in all the holes” pass. Which means by the time you read this I’ll already be deep into my hacking and slashing draft. And then... other people will finally see it.

Which is kinda what I wanted to talk about.

Beta readers have come up here a couple of times, and we’ve talked about them at the Writers Coffeehouse (before the plague year forced us to go digital with it). But we’ve never really talked much about how to choose beta readers. What I want to be looking for, what I’ll need from them, and so on.

I’ve actually asked three new people to be beta readers for me on this book. For a few different reasons. And  I thought it might be worth going over some of these reasons.

So... what do I look for in a beta reader?

(aside from a high level of beta-particle absorption...?)

Knowledge – All of my beta readers have something they’re better than me at. It might be a specific aspect of their background, their education, or a point of view I just can’t emulate, but there’s always something they know that I don’t. There’s a specific reason I want this person to read this manuscript before I send it off to my agent or an editor.

On a related note, these are also people I know understand why I’m asking them to look at this. They know what I’m hoping to hear (or not hear) from them. And they understand the format I’d like to get these notes back in. When I ask my biochemist friend to read this, he should understand I’m hoping he’ll catch any glaring errors in biochemistry, and maybe also related dialogue and actions. It doesn’t help me if I ask a lawyer I know to beta-read my courtroom drama and she says “I didn’t see any typos, except for a couple glaring ones in the last third of the manuscript.”

Patience – Before I start sending a manuscript off, I double check with folks to make sure they’ve actually got time for this right now. They might be able to squeeze in reading a book right now, but do they actually have room in their schedule to go through my manuscript (possibly twice) with a critical eye? I want to make sure they’re going to be able to consider and absorb things, not just skim through and say “I liked it.”

There’s also a personal thing to this. I need to be aware of what people like so I can at least have an early sense of how they’ll (hopefully) respond to this. If Phoebe really loathes mysteries, I don’t want to give her a book with a strong mystery element and ask her what she thinks. She’s going to have a lot more patience for a story with a strong sci-fi aspect.

This is important because...

(a chime rings, signaling you to turn the page)

The Micro and Macro– This is one of the ones were it’s especially important to have a really good sense of my readers. When it comes to criticism, any book is going to have two aspects to it. There’s the big picture stuff—did you like it? Did the twist make sense? Was Wakko’s overall motivation believable? Then there’s the smaller stuff—does this line of dialogue work? Does this description stand out? Is this action too detailed?

The catch is, there are things that can look wrong or odd on the small scale, but it turns out they’re correct when we look at the big picture. If I say “Hitler died in 1964,” that’s wrong. But if I say that in a sci-fi, secret-history story, maybe there’s something to it.

I don’t want a beta reader who’s only going to focus on the micro or the macro, and not how they combine to make a good book. I don’t want them to have the book for a month and then just say “This was pretty good overall,” and I also don’t want to get back 300 marked-up pages where they marked something as wrong that’s explained three paragraphs later.

Honesty – I don’t think I’ve ever used a beta reader that I’ve known for less than two years. Most of them I’ve known for more than five, and about half of them for fifteen or more. And by “known” I mean hung out with, had long one-on-one discussions with, probably shared a meal or two, maybe a drink. I know them and they know me.

More importantly, they know me well enough to be honest with me. They’re not scared of accidentally hurting my feelings. They’ll tell me what I need to hear, even if it’s not pleasant.

At the same time, I’m not some faceless internet account they’re going to aim a firehose of criticism at. Some folks like to crow how they’re “just being brutally honest,” when the truth is they just like tearing things apart.

Trust—My last point about beta-readers ties to the previous one, but actually falls on us, the writers. Now that I’ve carefully selected these well-qualified people to read my manuscript... am I going to listen to them? Do I actually trust their knowledge and opinions, or am I just going to brush their criticism aside because I don’t like it?

I need to trust my beta readers. If I've got any doubts about their abilities, their motives, or their work ethic... I probably shouldn’t ask them to read this. If I’m going to ignore what they tell me, or tell myself they just didn’t get it... I probably shouldn’t ask them to read this. We need to be open to the criticism we’re going to get, and we have to trust the people giving it to us.

And that’s the kind of stuff I look for in a beta reader. You may have a few special considerations of your own, depending on your own editing methods or the particular piece you’re working on. And that’s all fine—it’s what works for you.

But if this is the first time you’re ever gone hunting for beta readers and you’re not quite sure what their footprints look like... well, maybe some of this will help get you on the right track.

Next time on the ranty blog... I got a question about genre, and that’s always fun to talk about. And the week after that is (technically) San Diego Comic Con weekend, so there may be some fun to be had.

Until then, go write.

Tuesday, July 7, 2020

FAQ XV–Questions of the Plague Months

Normally I try to update the FAQ every six months or so. Partly for you, partly for me. To be honest, it’s tough for me to keep track of all the stuff going on (and potentially going on) as far as sales, releases, formats, options, and adaptations. Even more so when you figure these past few months time has become less of an absolute, often slowing to a crawl and stretching on and on and on when in fact it’s only Wednesday.

And, well, that particular effect has really intensified, hasn’t it? With the global pandemic and possibly months at home, not to mention the looming threat of murder hornets, I think a lot of us have either completely lost track of time or become all-too-painfully aware of it. I know I spent pretty much all of March and maybe the first week of April doomsurfing. Like, all the time. I didn’t mean to, or really want to, but that’s how every day ended up going.

But even with all that, I figured it might be worth doing a quick catch-up. I mean, I think we’d all enjoy something happening pretty much how and when it’s supposed to, right? Something working the way it’s supposed to? Novel idea, right?

So here’s me scribbling up answers to some of the most common questions I’ve gotten lately. Then when people ask me those questions (again!)—or when their teacher says “hey, hunt down an author on social media and ask them a bunch of questions”—I can say “hey, check out the FAQ I’ve pinned all over the place!”

Or maybe I won’t say it, cause at this point... I mean, there’s a current FAQ pinned right at the top of the page, several older versions of it, this blog, and several dozen interviews floating around the web. Plus I wrote a bunch of books, and it’s kind of amazing how often the answers are in the books.

Do your research, people! Be the mad scientist you always wanted to be when you were little!

1) When are we going to see something new?
If all goes well, the ebook for Terminus should be out just in time for San Diego Comic Con. Hahahaaaaaaaaa... sad laugh. More on that below.

Terminus should be out as an ebook by the end of July. I’m also looking at bringing one or two other things (at least) to ebook that have been kinda out of wider circulation for a bit. I’d hoped to have them done about... well, now, but then, again, everything kinda collapsed and time ceased to have meaning.

Past that... I’m just finishing up a book that kinda came out of nowhere, fortunately at a time when I could devote a lot of attention to it. It probably would’ve gone faster, but... again,  doomsurfing. As you’re reading this, odds are my agent’s reading that.

And I’ve got a big idea I might be pitching him. Like, silly-wildly big. Maybe we’ll be talking more about that in another six or seven months.

2) So, wait, no paper version of Terminus?
No. There’s a couple of different reasons for it, and they involve assorted business and PR things I’d rather not get into. There’s still a chance both books may still become available if there’s a big demand for them (feel free to tell Crown Publishing you want to read them in print and would buy half a dozen copies), but for the moment Terminus (and Dead Moon) are only going to be ebook and audio. Sorry.

3) Could you explain the whole “Threshold” series?
Threshold is the umbrella label for the shared “cosmic horror” universe I unknowingly began eight years ago with 14. There are some books that form a more linear story, a “series” if you will, and some that stand alone. A lot of Marvel movies are part of the direct Avengers through-line, but some—like Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2 or Thor: Ragnarok—are just set in the MCU. You can enjoy them without knowing a lot of the other movies (you’ll just catch a few more nods and references). Make sense?

And, yeah, this can make things a bit awkward sometimes. I know at points the marketing/publicity campaigns were pushing Threshold as a pure, straightforward series (Book One, Book Two, etc), even though I’ve said many times that it isn’t, and I know a few readers went into some books with very different expectations. I apologize if that was you.

4) So how does Dead Moon fit into the Threshold series?
As it happens, I wrote a whole book explaining this called Dead Moon.  Also check out #3 up above.

5) Why did you do all these “Audible exclusives” ?
Well, first off, I did two. Arguably four, since they offered to release some previously-published, out-of-print stuff nobody was interested in anymore—The Eerie Adventures of the Lycanthrope Robinson Crusoe and a bunch of short stories we combined into Dead Men Can’t Complain, but really those aren’t even exclusives.

Second, there’s a very solid argument to be made that the majority of my fanbase is audiobook listeners. Audible knows this, too, and so when they heard about Dead Moon and Terminus they made me an extremely generous offer for exclusive rights, meaning both of them would be audiobook only for the first six months they were out and then I’d be free to do what I want with them.

Yes, I know it made some of you grind your teeth. I’m sorry if you’re not an audiobook listener (for whatever reason) and it left you out of the loop for a bit. My agent and I talked a lot about the pros and cons of doing things this way. In the end, I really wanted to tell these stories and this was the best way to do it. Again, I’m sorry if it put you in a bad spot.

6) Do you make more money if I buy one of your books in a certain format?
I know this sounds like an easy question, but there’s about a dozen conditionals to any answer I give.  Figure a huge chunk of each contract is just all the different terms and conditions for when and if and how people get paid.

For example... format matters, sure, but so does where you bought the book.  And when.  And how many people bought it before you. And if it was on sale. And who was actually holding the sale.  And all of this changes in every contract.  What’s true for, say, Paradox Bound may not be true for Terminus.

TL;DR—just buy the format you like.

7) Do you have any plans to attend ########-Con?
Hahhahahaaaaa remember when this was a serious question?

Okay, in all fairness, I’m doing a lot of virtual-con stuff. I was “at” WonderCon and as I write this I'm about to do some things with Denver Pop Culture Con, plus I’m doing one or two things for SDCC in a couple of weeks. Also worth noting that I’ve tried to take the Writers Coffeehouse virtual, so for the next few months you can try to find me there.

After that, well... hopefully next year will be a bit closer to what we think of as normal? Maybe? If you want to see me at your local con, let them know. Email them, tweet them, post on their Instagram account. Reach out and let your voice be heard.

8) When are you going to make a movie/ TV series/ graphic novel/ video game of your books?
So, when people ask this, there’s a basic misunderstanding of how Hollywood works.  I have pretty much zero influence on Netflix making a Threshold series or the Hallmark Channel doing a Lycanthrope Robinson Crusoe movie. When we see a film adaptation or TV series, it means the studio went to the writer, not the other way around. I mean, if it was just about writers saying “hey, make this into a movie,” wouldn’t most books be adapted by now? Everybody’d be doing it.  

9) Well, is there anything we can do to help?
Buying books is the best step. Talking about them is a close second. Hollywood likes to see big sales numbers and interest.  Producers/ directors/ actors all hear about this stuff the same way you do—online reviews, bestseller lists, social media. If #ParadoxBound or #Terminus start trending on Twitter tomorrow, there’ll probably be a film deal within a week. Seriously. Try it.

One easy thing to help with this?  Don’t buy books from Amazon if you don’t absolutely have to. Write reviews there, sure, but Amazon sales figures don’t always get included in  bestsellers lists. Yeah, buying or pre-ordering from your local bookstore might cost a buck or two more, but it’s a purchase Hollywood’s much more likely to notice in the long run. Plus, now you’re one of those cool people supporting local businesses—and we need more people like that right now.

10) But wait... I heard you don’t like people talking about your books. Which is it?
I’m thrilled and amazed people talk about anything I wrote. Seriously. What I can’t stand are people who blurt out spoilers that can ruin the impact of these stories for other people. It’s why I avoid those questions in interviews, ignore them on Twitter, and why—where I can—I delete (or block) posts that reveal things from a book.

And not just my stories! You shouldn’t mess up other stories, either. Movies, TV—I’m just saying, if you enjoyed it spoiler-free, why not try to give other people a chance to enjoy it the same way? I still haven’t watched the finales of She-Ra or Game of Thrones, dammit! I’m looking forward to finally seeing Arya on the Iron Throne!

11) Is Ex-Isle the last Ex book?
Yeah, Ex-Tension is staying on that back burner for the moment.  Sorry.

The truth is, every series has a limited life. Book one always sells best, not as many people show up for book two, even less show up for book three, and so on. Not a lot of folks leap in on book five, y’know? Something could always happen to give the first book a boost (and all the other books after it) but they’re still all going to be on a near-constant downward slope heading for that big red line where things aren’t profitable. None of the Ex-Heroes books ever lost money (thank you all for that), but they were on that slope and when the publisher looked ahead to book six... well, hitting said line was pretty much unavoidable.

12) Have you considered a Kickstarter or a GoFundme?
Yeah, the answer’s still no, sorry. I love these books. I had tons of fun writing them. I’m still amazed there are so many fans who feel so passionately about them. But the math is pretty simple—if enough people were willing to pay for another book, the publisher would be willing to put out another book. And all the numbers say that’s just not the case.

Yeah, I know some of you might be willing to pay twice as much (or more) to see one more book, but I think we can all agree there’s at least as many people (probably more) who wouldn’t pay anything. And that’s the math again—it just doesn’t work out for this.

Another point to consider. I’ve already got a good idea what I’m working on... probably for the next two years at this point (that big idea I mentioned up top). Maybe even a little farther. But if I do a crowdfunded project, it means I have to schedule things under the assumption it’s going to succeed. Which means telling my publishers those other projects need to be put off and scheduled accordingly. Which leaves a six or seven month hole in my schedule when the Kickstarter flops. Which, again, all the math says is what’ll happen.

So again, no. Sorry.

13) Will you read my story and tell me what you think?
Short answer... no. 

Long answer... look, if I say yes to some folks, in the spirit of fairness I have to say yes to everyone. Now I’m spending most of my time reading and doing critiques instead of writing.  I don’t mean to sound mercenary, but... writing is how I pay my mortgage. So when someone asks me to read stuff, they’re asking me to give up a few hours of work. Plus, I do have this ranty writing blog sitting right, y’know, here with over a decade of advice and tips.

Also... some folks are lawsuit-crazy, and the bad ones ruin it for everyone else. Somebody shows me a piece of bland, generic fanfic and a few years from now they sue me for stealing their ideas. Yeah, I know how stupid that sounds, but I’ve actually been subpoenaed and deposed for lawsuits withless behind them than that. It’s why I’m verrrry leery when I get a long message along the lines of “You know what you should really do next with the people from 14...”  Heck, some writers respond with cease & desist orders when they get sent stuff like this.  

So the long answer also boils down to “no.” And if you send stuff without asking, I’ll delete it unread, just like spam mail.

14) What’s up with your Facebook page?
Ahhhhh, Facebook. Where we’re the consumer and the product. Just like Soylent Green.

Sad fact is, Facebook made it pretty much pointless for me to have a fan page there.  They altered their algorithms over the years and my posts gradually went from 70-85% engagement to barely scraping 10-15% most of the time. All so I’d pay to reach people who were already following me. And I won’t do for a few reasons, the main one being folks pretty solidly proved years ago that paying for views on Facebook actually decreases your reach. Seriously.

And, sure--it’s their site. They can run it however they like. And yeah they absolutely deserve to make money off it. I’m a progressive, but I still believe in (regulated) capitalism.

But then there’s all of Facebook’s side ventures. Collecting countless amounts of personal data. Deliberately spreading misinformation. Malicious social engineering. If you think I’m exaggerating, look up articles about how Facebook shaped perceptions or spread propaganda in Myanmar or Sri Lanka. And these aren’t fringe articles—they’re from major news sites.

So, yeah,  I deleted my Facebook account months ago (long overdue), which means the fan page there is cut loose with no administrator.

15) What about Twitter or Instagram?
I’m @PeterClines on both.  Fair warning--as some of you may have figured out, I’m progressive and I’m a bit more political on Twitter. Most Saturdays I also drink and live-tweet bad B-movies while building little toy soldiers so...  look, don’t say you didn’t know what you were getting into.

Instagram is probably the geekier of  my social medias.  How is that possible, you ask?  Well, there’s more little toy soldiers, LEGO, classic toys.  And cats.  Can’t have an Instagram account without cats. Sometimes these things mix.

Yeah, I know Instagram’s also owned by Facebook, but (for the moment) they’re not being quite so reprehensible over there.  So (also for the moment) I’ll still be there.



And I think that should answer about 90% of your questions, yes...?